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Sermon for Sunday 14 December 14

FIRST READING Isaiah 61:1–4, 8–11

1 The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; 2 to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion — to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory. 4 They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. 8 For I the LORD love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. 9 Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the LORD has blessed. 10 I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. 11 For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.


PSALM Psalm 126

1 When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream. 2Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy. Then they said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.” 3The LORD has done great things for us, and we are glad indeed. 4Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses of the Negeb. 5Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy. 6Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.

SECOND READING 1 Thessalonians 5:16–24

16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise the words of prophets, 21 but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22 abstain from every form of evil. 23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

GOSPEL John 1:6–8, 19–28
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22 Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23He said,
“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,'”
as the prophet Isaiah said. 24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” 28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

One of the things I find amusing and interesting is to read what children write. At times, these letters can be completely candid. I recently saw this candor in a list that someone compiled of children’s letters to Santa. The first one read: “Dear Santa, “Could you come early this year? I’ve been really super good, but I don’t know if I can last much longer. Please hurry. Love, Jordan.” Now that’s what I call an honest young man. A second one says: “Dear Santa, “Mommy says that you only bring presents for good little boys. That isn’t fair. (Signed) Brian.” Sounds to me like Brian has already failed the test for being good. And then there’s this one from Jenny: “Dear Santa, “Please give me a doll this year. I would like her to eat, walk, do my homework, and help me clean my room. Thank you. I understand Jenny’s Mom has asked Santa for that identical doll.
Our Advent announcement for this Sunday comes from lips of the Master himself. Jesus was in Galilee where He was already gaining quite a following. Luke tells us He was teaching in the synagogues, and “everyone praised him.” He went to Nazareth, where He’d been brought up, and on the Sabbath day He went into the synagogue, as was His custom. He stood up to read and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. Unrolling it, He found today’s passage from the Old Testament for the third Sunday of Advent, the 18th verse. He read these words: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then, says Luke, He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on Him. Then the Master dropped the bomb shell. He said to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” By reading this passage and announcing the fulfillment of this scripture, Jesus radically changed the course and history of humankind. He began with what they knew, synagogue attendance, and then shattered their understanding of what they thought they knew of scripture.
Regular worship is important as Jesus demonstrates here. Luke records that it was His custom to worship in the synagogue. The pattern of worship followed then was similar to the one we follow today. In the meetings, there was a fixed reading from the law called Shema (Deut. 6:4-9), which was followed by a free reading from the prophets (called Haphtorah), then a translation of this into the vernacular and a running commentary, a sermon, the offering of prayers, and a blessing. This was normally led by the Rabbi, but a visiting rabbi might be expected to conduct a part of the synagogue services.
What was different then from now is that the teacher sat during the synagogue services. Jesus of course, as the visiting teacher, read from Isaiah for a reason. He was there to announce that the people there that day were witnesses to who He was and what He had come to accomplish. The passage was important; to have fixed on any passage announcing His sufferings (as Isa. 53) would have been unsuitable at this early stage of His ministry. So He selected a passage announcing the sublime object of His whole mission, its divine character, and His special endowments for it.
It’s also important to note here that the Scripture was written in the first person and so was especially adaptable to the first opening of His mouth in His prophetic capacity. The passage Jesus chose is from the well-known section of Isaiah’s prophecies where the central figure is that mysterious “Servant of the Lord,” despised of man, abhorred of the nation, but before whom kings are to arise on seeing Him and princes are to worship. The Passage depicts the deliverance of Israel from Babylon in the “Year of Jubilee” terminology. In this year all debts were to be cancelled, slaves were to be freed, and property was to be returned to its original owner. Jesus boldly links this coming age with Himself—an age which the prophet must have had in mind, since the people were still oppressed. The acceptable year is also an allusion to the Jubilee year (Lev. 25:10).
The expression also refers to the era of God’s favor upon man in which God would accept all who come to Him. Jesus lists all the maladies that humanity suffers from; poverty, broken heartedness, bondage and blindness, and then announces Himself, as the healer in the act of reading this Scripture. He declares Himself to be the Messiah, the Anointed One—anointed with the Spirit of the Lord. This anointing occurred at the time of His baptism, the time when the Holy Spirit descended on Him (3:22). But His words didn’t get the reaction that one would expect. The people thought the Messiah was to be a military type leader, one that would free them from the Roman oppression. So hearing Him say that He was the long awaited Messiah and that He had something different in mind, wasn’t what they wanted at all.
The announcement Jesus made that day was a message that those listening didn’t want to hear. Luke tells us that “all the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff” (4:28-29). That’s quite the reaction to just a few words.
Luke tells us that Jesus escaped, but His words generated some powerful emotions. Why is that? After all, He’s talking about bringing relief to those who need it most. Maybe it’s the same reason His words still stir powerful emotions today. Far too many people have a preconceived notion of who God is. Like the people of Jesus’ day, they want the Messiah to do what they want Him to do. They don’t want to accept anything different. Many people want Jesus to stick to religion, to back up their perception of politics or policies, not talk about the needs of the poor or people in prison or people with handicapping conditions. If He talked about prayer or reading the Bible, nobody would have cared. But here, He was meddling with issues that hit too close to home, and that made people angry. It still does.
These words of our Lord, taken from our Old Testament lesson for today, come as close to anything in the Gospels to being Christ’s mission statement. The announcements declare what He’s all about. Christ has been anointed by God’s Spirit to announce good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, and to announce the year of the Lord’s favor. And He began His pronouncement by saying He was bringing good news to the poor.
I think we can all agree that the poor need some good news whether they live in Afghanistan, Africa, or right here in the United States of America. I think we can all agree that it’s no picnic to be poor, particularly at Christmas. If you wonder why the church has so much to say about the plight of the poor, it’s because Christ cared so much for them. Besides, if the church doesn’t speak up for the poor, who will? Christ calls us to be people of compassion.
Allan C. Emery tells a moving story in his book A Turtle on a Fencepost. It’s about someone who embodied the kind of compassion for others that Christ longs for in us. The person was Emery’s father. Emery tells about a trip his family took on a train when he was a boy. There was a kindly porter on that train, an African-American gentleman. As the porter moved about, young Allan noticed that he walked with a limp. The porter told Allan that he had had an ingrown toenail. A chiropodist had worked on it the previous day, but it had become infected. He was obviously in great pain.
The next morning Allan’s father commented upon the way the porter appeared to be in pain, and Allan explained the reason. After breakfast, much to his surprise Allan saw the porter coming out of his parents’ drawing room. As the porter walked toward him, Allan saw that he was distressed, and as he passed him, the porter’s face appeared to fracture and he broke out crying, great tears cascading down his cheeks onto his white jacket. He went into the men’s lounge, sat down upon a leather bench, put his hands over his face, and cried.
Young Allan was embarrassed to see a grown man cry, but he felt the man needed attention. So he sat beside him and waited until he had quieted down some. He was particularly concerned because the porter had just left his parents’ room. He asked, “Are you crying because your toe hurts?” The porter replied, “No, it’s because of your dad.” This really concerned Allan, so he pressed for the story.
The porter told Allan that Allan’s mother and father had returned from breakfast and his father had immediately approached him, asking about his toe. His father told the porter that he wasn’t a doctor, but he felt he might be able to help him. The porter was reluctant but, at Mr. Emery’s insistence, he went into the drawing room and exposed a toe, terribly inflamed and swollen. Allan’s father offered to lance it, clean it out, and bandage it to relieve the pain and expedite healing. The porter agreed and, as he told Allan about it, the porter burst out crying again. Allan asked, “Did it hurt that much?”
The porter said, “It didn’t hurt at all, and it feels fine now.” Young Allan, puzzled, asked, “Then, why are you crying?”
“Well, the porter said, “while he was dressing my toe, your dad asked me if I loved the Lord Jesus. I told him my mother did, but that I didn’t believe as she did. Then he told me that Jesus loved me and had died for me. As I saw your dad carefully bandaging my foot, I saw a love that was Jesus’ love and I knew I could believe it. We got down on our knees and we prayed and, now, I know I am important to Jesus and that He loves me.” With that, says Allan Emery, the porter started crying again, happy and unashamed. When his sobs subsided, he earnestly burst out, “You know, boy, kindness can make you cry.”
That level of kindness can bring a person to tears. I believe we could take this world in a single generation if those who call themselves followers of Jesus would show that kind of compassion to others. This season of the year is a reminder that we’re to be kind, particularly to those who don’t have the advantages that we do. The message of Christmas is directly aimed at people who are disadvantaged. The announcement Jesus made about His mission is, first of all, good news to the poor. Second, Jesus’ announcement is also freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind.
Jesus’ aim was to set the oppressed free. The words “prisoners” and “the blind” are much broader than simply those who are behind bars and those whose eyes are damaged. Prisoners can be captive to a host of oppressors. People who are addicted to drugs are certainly prisoners. You can be imprisoned by self-hatred or guilt or fear or prejudice. The message is also for those who cannot see.
People can be spiritually blind just as easily as they can be physically blind, blind to the needs of those around us, blind to the ministry God has purposed for our life. Sometimes we’re blind to our connection to all the rest of God’s children. Pastor Pritchett, an Episcopal rector, tells an important and heart-warming story about a Christmas party that he was once a part of.
The women of his church each year would invite a special education class of children with cerebral palsy for a Christmas party. These boys and girls with disabilities came as guests, so that the children of the parish, who were all quite healthy, could put on a pageant for them. The guest children were served cookies and refreshments made by the women of the church. One of the men dressed up as Santa Claus and came to give out Christmas presents.
Two years into this project, one of the teachers in the special needs class suggested that perhaps her students could return some of the church’s generosity and hence participate in a shared Christmas festivity. Even though, says Pastor Pritchett, the church folks were tentative at first about this approach, I mean after all, they were supposed to be helping and giving to those less fortunate at Christmas, the brave women of the church agreed to this experiment.
It was a cold, bitter, rainy day when the cerebral palsy class performed the Christmas pageant at their church. There was Mary and Joseph, one little black boy and one little white girl, in wheel chairs. The angel couldn’t keep her arms from flying in the air. The shepherds came on crutches. It took a long time for the Wise Men, pushing their wheelchairs, to get from the back of the parish hall to the manger. It was almost impossible to understand the narrator because of her speech impediment, but everybody knew the story anyway. “No one tried to help anyone else,” reports the pastor, “and no one felt embarrassed. It was quiet at first and then there was laughter and sometimes there were tears.
The simple truth from the manger was clear; some of us have cerebral palsy and some of us don’t. Some of us are children and some of us are adults. Some of us are black and some of us are white. Some of us are poor and some of us are rich. But we’re all human beings and we are peculiarly separate while being peculiarly united. One thing is for sure, we’re all vulnerable, we’re all fragile much like a baby . . .” It was a learning experience for that congregation.
Some people are imprisoned by their disabilities. But other people are imprisoned by their inability to put themselves in the shoes of someone who is just as valuable to God, but has obstacles to overcome. Jesus came to announce good news to the poor, to announce freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free. And the final announcement Jesus made that day was that He came to announce the year of the Lord’s favor.
A lot of people read this passage and ask themselves what does that mean, “the year of the Lord’s favor”? A complete answer to that question would take more than a mere sermon. It’s obviously related to the Old Testament idea of the “Year of Jubilee” mentioned in Leviticus 25 when slaves would be freed, debts cancelled, land rested, and compassionate help would be given to those in need. To paraphrase biblical scholar N.T. Wright, Jubilee was a time when God would hit the reset button to release and rescue from everything that has crippled human life.
The year of the Lord’s favor also had to do, quite obviously, with the Kingdom of God that Christ was introducing, a time when God would reign in every heart. But it also suggested the concept of grace that Christ made available to humankind. Humanity’s whole relationship was moving from an atmosphere of fear to an atmosphere of love. As we noted earlier, Christ’s words came from our lesson for the day from Isaiah 61. But it’s interesting, He didn’t complete Isaiah’s thought.
Listen again as I read from Isaiah and see if you hear something that Jesus didn’t say; “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God . . .”
Jesus left off the part about “the day of vengeance of our God . . .” I don’t think this was a mere oversight or accident that He left that part out. I think it was to show us that this was to be part of His mission, to correct how humanity sees God. I believe this also has something to do with how our Lord taught us to pray; “Our Father in heaven…” Unless you had a very warped father, which does happen sometimes, it’s very difficult to reconcile “Daddy” and “the vengeance of God.”
I believe that Christ’s coming was partially for the purpose of resetting our understanding of who God is. I heard about two children who were talking about the Bible. One of them was quite upset about some of the atrocities that are found in the Old Testament. The other of them, a little girl, thought for a moment and then said, “Those things must have happened before God became a Christian.” I guess in a sense, that’s true. How can you fear the vengeance of God who wraps Himself up in a babe in a manger?
Our lesson for this third Sunday of Advent is from Isaiah, but our understanding of this passage is from Christ Himself. We’re living in the year of the Lord’s favor. We’re living in the light of the star of Bethlehem. The message of Advent and Christmas is and will always be Good News for the poor, for the disadvantaged, for the marginalized, for the oppressed, for the captive and in short, for all humankind. Jesus announced that a new thing had come into the world, that the Messiah had come. And with Him, Jesus brought freedom and a Jubilee year, a time in which all those in bondage of any kind, would be set free. This is good news to all and news that we need to proclaim to the world. Welcome my friends, to the year of the Lord’s favor.

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